Archive for Shabbat Zachor

Shabbat Zachor: A Torn Garment

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2023

 וַיִּסֹּב שְׁמוּאֵל, לָלֶכֶת; וַיַּחֲזֵק בִּכְנַף-מְעִילוֹ, וַיִּקָּרַע. 

As Shmuel turned to leave, he seized the corner of his robe, and it tore. ( I Samuel 15:27) 

Hello again! This weekend the Torah portion is Tetzaveh, mostly concerned with the garments of the priests, and the haftarah is for Shabbat Zachor, which is always right before Purim. Shabbat Zachor has a special additional Torah reading about Amalek’s attack on the Jewish people, and the haftarah continues the theme with the story of King Shaul’s war against Agag, king of Amalek in his day. The two stories of conflict with Amalek are connected to Purim because Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is a descendant of Agag, the antagonist of this week’s haftarah. 

Now that you have all that background, let’s ignore all of the Amalek/ Haman/Purim related themes for today and instead focus on the dramatic moment when Shmuel, the prophet, tells King Shaul that he has lost the kingship. Shaul failed to wipe out the Amalekites, which is a troubling command, which we can revisit another time. The text says that when Shmuel, the prophet, confronted the king about the failure to wipe out the Amalekites and all their animals and property, Shaul offered up the somewhat lame excuse that his troops wanted to offer the best animals as sacrifices to God and he was afraid of what they’d do if he, the king, didn’t let them have their way. Shmuel rebukes Shaul, saying that obedience is better than sacrifice – again, this is a story that’s difficult for modern readers- and tells Shaul that God has rejected him as king. 

When the prophet turns to go, we get the sentence quoted above: 

As Shmuel turned to leave, he seized the corner of his robe, and it tore.

What’s interesting here is that the Sefaria translation which I’ve adapted, says that it was Shaul, the king, who grabbed Shmuel’s garment, as Shaul wanted the prophet to go with him as he tried to fix his mistake. The Hebrew, however, is more accurately rendered as I’ve done above, with ambiguous pronouns. Rashi notices this too, and points out that even the ancient sages weren’t sure if it was Shaul tearing Shmuel’s garment- probably the simplest reading of the text- or the other way around, that Shmuel tore the king’s robe. 

The latter reading is plausible for two reasons. The very next verse has Shmuel comparing the tearing of the garment to the loss of the kingdom: 

And Shmuel said to him, “The LORD has this day torn the kingship over Israel away from you and has given it to another who is worthier than you. (15:28

Furthermore, Shaul’s garment gets torn by his successor, David, just a few chapters later. In chapter 24, Shaul sets out with thousands of men to find and kill David, but David is able to sneak up on him in a cave and cut off the corner of his robe. David then presents this as proof that he means the king no harm, as he could have killed him but didn’t. (See 1 Samuel 24 verses 1-21.) 

So it makes literary sense that it was Shmuel that cut Shaul’s robe when announcing that the kingdom is “torn from him,” as shortly thereafter, when David shows him the piece of cloth cut from his robe, Shaul is forced to admit that indeed, kingship is taken from him and given to David. In this reading of our verse, Shmuel’s action is a foreshadowing of David’s: when Shaul realized the two robe-cuttings were connected, he had no choice but to confront the bitter reality that he was trying to avoid. 

The key word in verses 27 and 28 is karah ( קָרַ֨ע), to tear. You might recognize this as the same root or sound as kriah, which is the tearing of the garment at a funeral or upon hearing of the death of a loved one. Kriah is one of the most distinctive Jewish rituals of mourning, going back to Biblical times. Connecting the Shaul’s torn robe with kriah, the ritual of mourning, fits with the interpretation that it was the prophet who tore the king’s robes and not vice versa: perhaps the prophet was showing the king through the symbolism of tearing that he must accept his loss, and that grief would be a better reaction than resisting the new reality. 

In my work at the hospital, I often see patients or their loved ones who simply cannot accept what is plainly happening. We humans are often quite good at ignoring that which we don’t want to see, or denying that which we don’t wish to be true. Perhaps it’s even more true for people of wealth and power and privilege, who are used to imposing their will on others or getting their way in the world. In our case, a mighty king seemed to confess in the moment that his entire life had been upended, but soon enough went back to living as if he’d never heard what the prophet proclaimed. 

In this telling, King Shaul displays the most ordinary human fallibility: he denies to himself what he must, on some level, know to be true. He could have torn his garment in grief and humility, and perhaps not come to the tragic end that was the inevitable result of his fruitless attempts to hold fast to what was already lost. So in our own lives, when confronted with difficult truths, and we are shown that our robes are torn, as it were, the challenge is to mourn what is lost, but accept what we must. That is the path towards healing and renewal, and it starts with facing truth bravely. 

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Shabbat Zachor: Remember to Wage Peace

Good afternoon! I’ve been absent from commenting for far too long- maybe the world is so crazy I just don’t know what to say, but I do have a commentary on Shabbat Zachor published in this month’s Voice, the Jewish paper in Dutchess County. I shall return to the drashing blogosphere!

Now, on to Shabbat Zachor:

The holiday of Purim is not just one day of costumes and parties, but perhaps more properly understood as a drama of fasting and feasting unfolding over the course of a week, and not just because that’s how long it takes to assemble our mishloach manot (gift baskets of food given on Purim).  The drama of Purim begins unfolding on the Shabbat before Purim, called Shabbat Zachor–  the Sabbath of Remembering.  What we remember on Shabbat Zachor is not, in fact, what happened in Shushan in ancient Persia but what happened to the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt. We remember by adding an additional text to our Torah reading:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—

how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!  (Deuteronomy 26:17-19)

It seems fairly straightforward at first glance: remember the evil deeds of the nation Amalek, how they ambushed the weakest Israelites, and take action to “blot them out” from the earth. Lest there be confusion about what “blot out the memory” of Amalek means, our haftarah, or prophetic portion assigned to this Shabbat, tells the story of the first king of Israel wiping out the Amalekites in war: man, woman and child, and only getting in trouble with the prophet Samuel because he spared the king and the animals. These passages help put the Purim story in a larger historical context, as the villain Haman is descended from Agag, the king that Samuel executed, who himself is an Amalekite.

We hardly need contemporary political events to be troubled by the thought that a mad king could declare a genocidal war. Some commentators have insisted that Amalek no longer exists, so the commandment is no longer in force. Others have seen it as a warning not about any particular people or nation, but about evil more generally: “don’t forget,” in this reading, means “don’t be complacent.”

Yet the commandment to blot out Amalek isn’t as simple as it seems, for it is balanced by another commandment found earlier in Deuteronomy:

When you approach a city to wage war against it, you shall propose peace to it.  (Deut. 20:10)

Please note that the commandment above- to offer terms of peace before making war- has no exceptions, not even for Amalek; this opinion is codified by no less than Maimonides, the greatest legal sage of medieval Judaism. To be clear, offering terms of peace, according to the ancient texts, doesn’t mean equal coexistence or détente, but more like surrender and becoming a vassal city to the Israelites, along with accepting general commandments of justice and rejecting idolatry.

Yet even that definition of peace redefines our relationship to the memory of Amalek, a nation which cannot be understood as categorically, inherently evil and worthy of destruction if they, too, are  capable of accepting peaceful surrender and taking upon themselves just laws. The rabbis even point to certain clues in the story of Saul’s battle with Amelek to suggest that he offered terms of peace before the battle, which they rejected, thus leading to war.

So what, then are we remembering on Shabbat Zachor? Perhaps we are remembering that despite our anger at being ambushed on the way out of slavery, or any other grotesque historical injustice, we still have an obligation to avoid war if at all possible. Perhaps we must remember that even Amalek, or its contemporary manifestations, is not ontologically evil, but comprised of human beings who are capable of repentance and given the choice of blessing or curse, as are we all. On Shabbat Zachor, we remember what Amalek did to us, but if there’s going to be peace in the world, we also have to remember what the advertisements say about every investment opportunity: past performance does not guarantee future results, so offer peace before waging war.


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Shabbat Zachor: Remember Your Power

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra/ Shabbat Zachor

And Samuel said, “You may look small to yourself, but you are the head of the tribes of Israel…” (I Samuel 15:17)

Good morning!

This week we read a special maftir, or concluding Torah reading, and haftarah for the Shabbat before Purim, called Shabbat Zachor for the commandment to remember what the Amalekites did to Israel on our way out of Egypt. The haftarah, or reading from the prophetic books, is from the book of Samuel, and also references the war between Amalek and Israel. In this case, Saul, the king of Israel, is commanded to go to war against Amalek and utterly wipe them out, but instead he kept the king as a prisoner and the animals for the troops to offer as sacrifices.

Samuel confronts Saul with his disobedience and kills King Agag himself, but not before rebuking Saul: however “small” you look to yourself, don’t forget you are king of Israel, and therefore held to a different standard than an ordinary citizen. Now, let’s set aside for a moment that Samuel’s command to Saul, to kill the Amalekites from king down to flocks, is not one we would regard as moral or legal according to current perspectives. Let’s instead take this one verse at face value: that a leader must remember they are not free to do as they please but are held to a higher standard of accountability than an ordinary citizen.

Anybody reading this can quickly apply that idea to current events, but I would take it one step further: that all of us, however “small” we may be in our own eyes, thinking our actions don’t matter, actually always have a chance to represent something bigger than ourselves. Every person can embrace a holiness of speech and nobility of action that demonstrates our consistent orientation to a higher and better path, regardless of the actions or pressures of others.

If you don’t like the way a particular leader or person is speaking or acting- don’t be small in your own eyes, but own your power to embody compassion, understanding and justice. Of course those who would presume to lead are held to a higher standard, but if we each hold ourselves to a higher standard, then perhaps we won’t be brought to a lower one by cynics, bigots and divisive demagogues. You may be small in your own eyes, but you are not. Never forget this!

Shabbat Shalom,


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.


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Shabbat Zachor: The Tragedy of Revenge

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav and Shabbat Zachor

“After these events, King Achashverosh promoted Haman, son of Hamdata, the Agagite and advanced him; he placed his seat above all his fellow ministers. All the king’s servants at the king’s gate kneeled and bowed before Haman, for so had the king commanded concerning him. But Mordechai would not kneel or bow. . . ”  (Book of Esther, 3:1-2)

Good evening!

This week we observe two related liturgical occasions within a few hours of each other. On Shabbat morning, we read a special concluding Torah reading and a special reading from the prophets, each related to Amalek, the enemy nation of the Jews whose descendant is the antagonist of the Purim story. These readings, calling us to “remember [zachor] what Amalek did to you,” give the Shabbat before Purim its name.

Then, a few hours later, after nightfall Saturday night, Purim begins, and we read the scroll of Esther, with its famous hero, Mordecai, and its villain, Haman, both mentioned in the verse above, which contains the plot device which propels the story to its conclusion: Haman is incensed that Mordecai will not bow to him as the king’s viceroy. Yet it’s not at all apparent why Mordecai won’t bow to the king’s second-in-command; after all, Avraham bowed to the visitors in the desert and to the residents of Hevron. There are other examples in the Bible as well; it is not an obvious Jewish principle of the times that one would not bow before a man of high station.

So something else is going on, and I believe it’s found in the family trees of both Mordecai and Haman. We learn from the verse above that Haman was a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek who was slain by the prophet Samuel after being defeated by the first king of Israel, Saul. (Cf. 1 Sam 15– this is the haftarah for  Shabbat Zachor.) On the other hand, we are told that Mordecai is a direct descendant of Kish, and a man of the tribe of Benjamin. (Cf. Esther 2:5)

Who was Kish, you might ask? Kish, since you asked, was the father of King Saul, meaning Mordecai himself is of that royal, albeit deposed, family. (Cf. 1 Sam 9:1-2.) Now, to be clear, the genealogy of Mordecai is not meant to be taken literally; Kish lived hundreds of years before Mordecai, not just a few generations as in the text. I think the abbreviated list of ancestors is meant to give us the highlights of the family line and tell us something important- namely, that the enmity between Haman and Mordecai goes way back to the time of Saul and Agag. It is entirely understandable that Mordecai would not bow down to a descendant of his familial enemy- and it is equally understandable, but not justifiable, that Haman would seek to humiliate and destroy a man associated with defeating the king of his own family’s history.

So what do we do with all this? Shabbat Zachor reminds us of Amalek and Agag, thus putting in context the seemingly arbitrary hatred of Haman and unbreakable pride of Mordecai. Perhaps these historical reminders give the story of Esther a tragic element, in that long-simmering resentments broke out in such a way that tens of thousands died in the cycle of revenge and defense. Ironically, while the readings of Shabbat Zachor remind us of the evil of Amalek, they also humanize, to a degree, the Amalekite Haman, who is now seen as the willful prisoner of a long-standing cycle of violence and war. This does not excuse his evil choices, but does help explain them.

On Purim, we laugh as the wicked Haman got hung from the gallows he made for Mordecai; but every other day of the year, we are to refrain from rejoicing over the downfall of our enemies. It is a tragedy that hatred persists over generations; on Purim our joy overcomes our sadness, but it by no means diminishes the fundamental Jewish obligation to heal hatred when we can, and fight it when we must.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,

Rabbi Neal

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Tetzaveh/ Shabbat Zachor: Remembrance of the Present

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh / Shabbat Zachor

Good morning!

It’s just a day before Purim, which means tomorrow is Shabbat Zachor, or the “Shabbat of Remembering,” which means there will be a special concluding Torah reading and a special haftarah.  These texts, always read on the Shabbat before Purim, tell of Israel’s war wit Amalek, the lawless people who attack the Israelites on their way out of Egypt. We are told in the Torah reading to always “remember” [zachor] to wipe out the memory of Amalek, hence the name Shabbat Zachor. Hundreds of years later, the first King of Israel, Shaul, was given the command to wipe out the Amalekites- man, woman, child and animals- but spares the Amalekite king as well as much of their riches.

This act- sparing the king and some of the animals- costs Saul his kingship, and sets up a connection with Purim (Agag, the Amalekite king, is the ancestor of Haman.) One might say that the texts of Shabbat Zachor remind us of the historical challenges of Jewish security; some believe that Jews must always remember there could always be an Amalek, or a Haman, just waiting to strike. The texts of Shabbat Zachor, and the Megillat Esther, or scroll of Esther, could be seen as teaching the historical imperative of Jewish self-defense. After all, at the end of Megillat Esther, the Jews rise up against those who would have attacked them and kill tens of thousands of their enemies in a preemptive strike.

Yet many readers are deeply troubled by Samuel’s order to Shaul to wipe out the Amalekites, including the children and even the animals. Such brutal warfare, punishing the innocent for the sins of their ancestors, seems out of place in a religious system that insists on justice and due process. (See, for example, Abraham’s famous argument with God over the innocent of Sodom.) Such questions become even more urgent in an age of genocide directed against Jews (and Armenians, and Tibetans, and Rwandans- the list goes on.) How can we possibly hold as a sacred text one which condones the massacre of an entire people, along with animals and property?

Perhaps one way to redeem the texts of Shabbat Zachor is by seeing them not as texts about them, but about us. Yes, Jews (and civilized people generally) must be vigilant about those who would harm us, and yes, sometimes innocent people die in defensive wars. It’s also true that if we are troubled by what the texts says happened in the past, we must remember that such acts happen now, in our day, and not only by countries or groups we might consider lawless or aggressive. Let’s remember that the United States is engaged in warfare on several continents, and unknown numbers of innocent men, women, and children have died in drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps other countries as well. Drone strikes are sometimes targeted on the basis of activities deemed suspicious from the air, but in some cases bombs dropped on villages and houses kill civilians, including children, as well. (Please see the websites of the NYU Law School drone project  and ProPublica’s comprehensive collection of known information about this semi-secret war for more information. Just hit the links. You’ll probably be amazed.)

I am neither endorsing nor condemning the Administration’s war actions in various countries; I am merely pointing out that we, too, currently take the lives of children when we as a country believe it to be necessary. Our moral revulsion at the violence in Biblical times should be tempered by introspection about the moral state of our own times; at the very least, reflection on how to fight Amalek should require that every citizen become knowledgable about what is being done in our names. On Purim, we rejoice in Jewish victory, but we also reflect on the ethical dilemmas of being a free people in a brutal world. The texts of Shabbat  Zachor call us to remember not only the past, but the present as well.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Purim: Reading and Reliving

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Dear Friends:

Tomorrow night is Purim, with its costumes, noisemakers, feasting and merriment, at the heart of which is the reading of the megillah, or scroll containing the book of Esther. We learn in the Mishnah, the early part of the Talmud, that one must read the book of Esther from a scroll, and in fact, one is not permitted to declaim it from memory, even if one had memorized the whole thing. (Mishnah Megillah 2:1- see text here.)

Now, that’s interesting, especially when one considers that just a month from now, we’ll sit down at a Passover table to tell the story of the Exodus, but we are not commanded to read a text, per se- just to tell the story and explain the central symbols of the holiday. The Passover text- the haggadah– is a tool, not the central idea. Yet on Purim, a lesser holiday, we have to tell the story by reading it out loud, from the written form, just as written.

Of course, the story of Mordecai and Esther is not more important in Jewish history than the story of the Exodus, but we should note that the story of Purim itself is told through texts- letters, laws, scrolls- from the decrees of Achashverosh and Haman, to the counter-decree which saved the Jews, to the command of Mordecai to remember the story itself, which was propagated far and wide by means of written communication:

“And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both nigh and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar . . . . .”(Es. 9:20-21, old JPS translation.)

Now we can see a similarity between Purim and Passover: on Passover, at theseder, we re-create the experience of slavery by eating matzah and maror, and then celebrating our freedom with the feast, wine, and grateful prayers. On Purim, we re-create the experience of the Jews in Persia by hearing the story declaimed from a scroll, a text, just as if we are there, receiving the words of Mordecai, enjoining us to observe the day and remember the events which lead to it.

Hearing the megillah, we’re like the Jews who have just been saved, grateful to be alive, determined to replace evil with good, hearing the news proclaimed as if from the royal court itself. We don’t just tell the story, but live it. Just as Mordecai commanded the Jews of his day to give gifts to the poor and gifts to neighbors and friends, we give gifts to the poor and send gifts of food (see herefor details.) As they celebrated and gave thanks, we celebrate and give thanks.

Reading from the megillah isn’t about recounting ancient history, it’s about being in the events, right now- because its greater themes, of life and death, gratitude and celebration, generosity and courage, are not history, but the core of life itself, today.

Happy Purim to one and all,


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Shabbat Zachor: Sending Gifts

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Tetzaveh

Shabbat Zachor

In Tetzaveh we learn laws of the priests and their service in the portable Sanctuary. Shabbat Zachor is right before Purim; we read a special Torah reading and haftarah reminding us of the dangerous nation of Amalek.

“And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both nigh and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly, the days wherein the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.” (Book of Esther, 9:20-22)

The quote above teaches us not only to observe Purim, but also two central practices of Purim observance: mishloach manot, or gifts of food, and matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor. (Click the links to get further explanation of these mitzvot.)

I draw your attention to these practices- sending gifts- by way of reflecting on the reading for Shabbat Zachor, which begins with the remembrance of Amalek’s attack on the Israelites and continues with the prophet Samuel, in the haftarah, executing Amalek’s king, Agag, as part of Israel’s war against its enemy. These texts are connected to Purim through the figure of Haman, said to be descended from Agag; just as the Amalekites sought Israel’s destruction in its land, Haman seeks Israel’s destruction in exile.

The texts of Shabbat Zachor and even of Purim itself contain shocking violence and are thus a sobering reminder that our world is not always safe nor joyful. Some interpret these readings as reminders of the necessity for Jewish self-defense when Amalek returns; while I don’t disagree that self-defense is one theme of Shabbat Zachor and Purim, I also don’t think it’s the only significant teaching of these passages.

We read above that Mordecai instituted Purim as not a solemn memorial day, but of feasting and sending mishloach manot and matanot l’evyonim, as explained above. To me, these practices- sending portions of food to our friends and family, and giving gifts to the poor- are also critical parts of the message. Precisely because the world can be cruel and unpredictable, our responses must not only be in kind, but also in kindness, creating compassionate communities. Compassionate communities, wherein the poor and lonely are remembered and sustained, will not in themselves stop an Amalek; but self-defense, in itself, will never heal us or the world from the scars that Amalek leaves. Perhaps Mordecai understood that after the people rose up against their enemies, the only way forward was to love each other more, and thus create the possibility that Amalek would be defeated in the realm of values, and not only in battle.

Shabbat Zachor calls us to remember what Amalek did to us, but Purim calls us to act in a way that defeats Amalek more completely: by acting out of our deepest vision of caring community, sustaining and gladdening each other, we show the world a different way of being, and this too is a triumph.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,


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Shabbat Zachor

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Zachor

This week we have a special reading on Shabbat; in addition to the regular Torah
portion, Tetzaveh (mostly about the garments of the priests), we have the
observance of Shabbat Zachor, which is always right before Purim. On Shabbat
Zachor- which means “rememberance”- we read a maftir, or concluding Torah
reading, from Deuteronomy 25, which recalls how Amalek, a warlike nation,
attacked the stragglers of the Israelites on their way out of Egypt.

Years later, when the Israelites have settled in the land, the prophet Shmuel
[Samuel] commands king Shaul [Saul] to attack Amalek and utterly destroy it, all
the people and all their property. Shaul wages the war, and wins, but lets the
troops keep the spoils of war, and Shaul himself spares the Amalekite king,
Agag. Shmuel condemns Shaul as disobedient and announces that God has chosen
another to be king, and dispatches Agag with his own hands.

The haftarah for Zachor links the earlier stories of Amalek with the Purim
narrative, in which the ancient enemy turns up as Haman the Agagite, a
descendant of Amalek. Yet the haftorah presents great moral problems, not the
least of which is this: can it really be that the God who commands us to care
for widows, orphans and strangers commands scorched-earth warfare against even
innocent non-combatants, children and animals? How is it possible that our
tradition endorses a text which seems to suggest that the children of an evil
nation are to be included in collective punishment? It goes against every
ethical instinct which might be inculcated by the very texts in which this story

It’s not an easy story, and perhaps, in the end, that’s the point. Those who
reject warfare against Amalek- in whatever form it takes in our generation- are
responsible for the blood on Amalek’s hands. (Remember, Amalek’s attack was
precisely on the weakest and most defenseless.) Yet those who would wage warfare
too easily end up like Shaul, with his moral credibility in tatters because he
disobeyed and allowed the army to take the animals as spoils of war- but did not
disobey in order to spare the women and children. Some commentators say that
Shmuel commanded Shaul to wipe out the entire nation precisely to make it clear
that this was a war against evil- any taking of booty or treasure might lead to
the conclusion that it was a war like any other, caused more by greed than

So what do we do with this difficult text? We sit with it, and allow ourselves
to be confronted with the messy truth that violence is sometimes necessary to
achieve a more just and safe world, but it’s equally true that those who use
violence for these ends often achieve neither justice nor safety. We must fight
Amalek, understood here as that part of the human soul which preys on weakness
and fear- but we must not become Amalek in the process, lest future generations
have a queasy feeling about our deeds the way we might when reading of Shaul’s.

This, to me, is precisely the greatness of a serious encounter with our sacred
texts: we are not given easy answers, but harder questions. Our march toward
frivolity on Purim night is preceded by stark contemplation of what good people
must do to confront evil, without becoming evil themselves.Yet even in a world
with such haunting questions, we can make room for the great joy awaiting us on
Purim, just a few days away, which brings the radical message of great joy
outlasting the darkest fears.

with blessings for a joyous Purim,


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Shabbat Zachor: Arrogance and Authority

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Zachor

This week is both the beginning of the book of Leviticus and also a special
Shabbat called Shabbat Zachor [Remember], which gets its name from a
short additional reading during the Torah service. The reading is from the
book of D’varim/ Deuteronomy, and describes the commandment to
remember Amalek, the evil people who attacked Israel’s stragglers along their
journey through the wilderness. Amalek is associated with Haman, the villain
of the Purim story, and so Shabbat Zachor always comes right before Purim is

Shabbat Zachor also has a special haftarah, or prophetic reading, and it’s a
very difficult text. Shaul [Saul], the first king of Israel, is told by the
Shmuel [Samuel] to attack the Amalekites and destroy them utterly, killing all
the people and even the animals. Shaul goes out to war, but doesn’t follow
Shmuel’s instructions: instead, he captures the king alive and takes the best of
the livestock as booty.

This disobedience to the letter of the commandment earns Shaul a rebuke
from Shmuel, who not only executes the captured king in cold blood but takes
the kingship from Shaul. Shmuel castigates Shaul harshly for not obeying the
instructions given to him:

“And Shmuel said, ‘You may look small to yourself, but you are the head of the
tribes of Israel. The Lord anointed you king over Israel, and the Lord sent you
on a mission, saying, ‘Go and proscribe the sinful Amalekites; make war on
them until you have exterminated them.’ ‘ Why did you disobey the Lord and
swoop down on the spoil in defiance of the Lord’s will?” (1 Samuel 15:17-19)

This text is problematic on quite a few levels, defying our basic sense of
mercy and offending our moral commitment to avoid unnecessary bloodshed
and collective punishment (and never mind that the original command itself
comes close to our definition of genocide.) We will not solve all those sticky
issues today- a full study of the moral and theological issues in this week’s
haftarah would take up quite a bit of bandwidth. However, neither can I
dismiss the text as the product of a brutal age. The ancient rabbis gave us the
practice of reading this story once a year, and trusting as I do in their
collective wisdom, I think we need to “turn it and turn it again” until I can
Torah even in the middle of a bloody and cruel narrative.

One way to redeem texts which we find offensive is to place them in a larger
context. In this case, the Israelite nation is making the transition from tribal
chiefs to a single king – which they themselves wanted, in order to be be like
the other nations. Shaul, the first king of Israel, earns himself an
“impeachment” from Shmuel because he substituted his own judgment for the
Divine law which he was pledged to uphold. Rather than seeing himself as
subject to Torah law, as interpreted by the acknowledged prophet of the era
(Shmuel), Shaul overreached his authority, thus showing himself to be unfit to
wield the powers of state.

Now, let me be clear: in no way am I advocating total warfare as a normative
Jewish value, nor am I suggesting that religious law should be the basis for
the political structure of the Jewish or American communities.

However, having said that, I do see in this story a classic case of leadership
hubris: the king saw himself as the source of law, rather than the implementer
of it. In contemporary political language, it’s a cliché to distinguish between
“nation of laws” and a “nation of men,” but I think that’s a big part of the
point in
this story, and a very relevant issue in a world where political authorities
routinely, even brazenly attempt to place themselves above national and
international norms and well-defined laws.

We can struggle with the issues of warfare and bloodshed as presented in
this week’s haftarah while at the same time seeing in it a cautionary tale about
the moral and spiritual dangers inherent in assuming positions of great
authority. Shaul- like countless other kings, prime ministers, presidents,
CEO’s, and other powerful people- fell victim to the solipsistic arrogance of
office, forgetting that he was there only to serve the community and safeguard
its laws. Pick up any newspaper, and you’ll see that this arrogance persists;
contemporary religion, with its fundamental ethical commitments, must serve
as a counterweight to those who would commit the idolatry of
unaccountability, forgetting that the nature of leadership is to be servant of
wider community and its rightful institutions.

So why read this story now, right before Purim? Well, who was the most
despotic figure in our traditional texts? Probably Haman, whose utterly
narcissistic sense of self-importance led him to devise a plot to exterminate an
entire people based on a perceived slight to his honor. I don’t think anybody
ever meant to directly compare Shaul- whose mistake may have been mercy!
– to Haman, but if this haftarah is seen as a commentary on abusing the
powers of office (among other things), then at least we can see a theme
running through the Purim season. Curbing the abuses of arrogance, of
course, should be a basic mission of religion- one that we must never forget,
and not just on Shabbat Zachor.

PS- the full text of this week’s haftarah can be found here:

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